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Moving landscapes with Daphne Mennell

When Yukon artist Daphne Mennell put on her first show in 1980s, the legendary northern painter, Ted Harrison, was its first visitor. More recently, Mennell has turned her talents to sculpting.


When Yukon artist Daphne Mennell put on her first show in 1980s, the legendary northern painter, Ted Harrison, was its first visitor.

More recently, Mennell has turned her talents to sculpting - first a caribou to greet visitors to Carcross and then a rearing horse at the top of Whitehorse’s Two Mile Hill.

But despite her breadth of experience, Mennell still dreams of going to art school.

“At some point,” she says, laughing. “But I don’t know when that’s going to happen.”

In the meantime, she is content teaching herself.

“I’m learning so much about painting and there is a phenomenal amount to learn,” she says, sitting in her log-cabin studio south of Whitehorse.

“It’s still something I can grow from,” she says.

And it’s changing all the time - even new colours are still being invented, she says.

On one side of her neat studio sits an open cabinet filled with tubes of oil paints. Atop it is a piece of cardboard turned into a palette. It is covered in bumps and mounds of dry and wet paint, like a topographical diorama of colour.

The cabin’s vaulted ceilings make the small space seem much larger than it is. Natural light pours in through the main windowed-wall.

Despite Mennell’s successful foray into the world of sculpting, a glance around her studio shows she’s now fully immersed back into painting.

“I’m really adventuring with colour,” she said, gesturing to the pieces of work she’s preparing for her upcoming show.

Born in Toronto, Mennell also lived in Montreal, Wales and the Bahamas before moving north to the Yukon.

After more than 35 years in the territory, she says she is still falling in love with the place.

“We see things that you don’t see down South,” she says. “We see clean sunsets lingering sunsets that go on for three hours. We see things that no one else sees and I guess this is the thing that keeps taking my breath away. And it’s something I want to share.”

Mennell mostly paints landscapes, but that doesn’t mean her subjects don’t move, she explains.

Each piece starts with a view and a sketchbook.

“It’s a bit like music,” she says, flipping through the sketches, her hands moving over the pages like a conductor.

Pencil marks are enough to remind her of the way a particular landscape was “composed” when she first saw it - the way the wind flowed and the rhythm of the trees.

In much of her work, you can see how the shadows and tree trunks give in to whimsical bends, like hips to a bass beat.

“Landscape is drama that’s been stopped,” she says.

For her, every sketch is somewhat like a pause in time-lapse photography.

“You start to see the movement. The same thing with how trees grow. There’s a lot to learn from landscape. It tells a story.”

Walking over to a canvas depicting a forest floor, she explains how the sunlight dripping on the foliage became a school of fish to her. As she points out spatula-dabbed paint, the little dots of blue and green change and it almost appears as if the fish are coming to life.

Mennell likes to put a lot of movement into her paintings and prefers to work on bigger canvases so she can use more of her body.

She also talks to herself when she paints.

It’s one of the reasons she had to “kick out” her husband and fellow artist, Lee Mennell, from the cabin studio.

The two could not have more different styles, she says.

Her husband works over a magnifying glass and is a master of minute detail.

“He was too much of an influence,” Mennell says, citing his habit of critiquing her work.

She didn’t really find her own style until he had to leave the territory for a trip decades ago.

But even it has changed a lot, she says, recalling a piece she did years ago of a woman with a message scrolled across her chest.

“I could come to the place where I go back to do more spiritual or religious images, but for now, I’m learning so much. And that’s what art is all about, growing.”

An exhibit of Mennell’s recent paintings is currently on display at the Hilltop Bistro at Whitehorse’s Yukon College campus.

Her next show, called Foot Paths, is scheduled for May at the Copper Moon Gallery.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at